Biographical roles have certainly helped winners. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played another real-life character in "Capote," is likely to prevail, said film historian Louis Giannetti.
"Phoenix and Hoffman both took Golden Globe awards, and that makes them leaders of the pack, but Hoffman's a bit older. It's a more serious role, and he's got so many good roles under his belt. He's never won, and it's his time."
Ledger had a breakout performance in "Brokeback," but he lost to Hoffman at the Golden Globes, and he's coming off a string of bubblegum roles in action-adventure movies that didn't necessarily light up the box office. "Go with the older man," Giannetti says. "That's how it usually plays out."
Best Actress: If there's one safe bet this year, it's Reese Witherspoon as best actress for her portrayal of June Carter in "Walk the Line."
Like her co-star Phoenix, she had little previous musical experience, yet did all her own singing and also managed to portray the woman who saved Cash from his inner demons. "She's brought home so many pictures, from 'Legally Blonde' movies to period pieces, and she's widely loved in the industry," Miller said.
Playing a man about to undergo a sex-change operation in "Transamerica," Felicity Huffman turned in one of the most talked-about roles of the year. However, the film hasn't been playing in many theaters. She won the Golden Globe for dramatic acting over Oscar winners Charlize Theron (North Country") and Gwyneth Paltrow ("Proof"), among others, and that might bode well for her career in film, but not enough to prevail in a head-to-head contest with Witherspoon.
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney took the Golden Globe in this category for his work in "Syriana," and he's the man to beat. With a hand in two films that earned Oscar consideration, he could be poised to spend a lot of time in the winners' circle.
"That reputation as 'ER's' pretty boy seems so far off," Giannetti says. "They said it about Redford. They said it about Newman. Clooney is aspiring to that level, and this could seal the deal. Some people are just blessed with brains and talent."
But Giannetti thinks Gyllenhaal could surprise, especially if "Brokeback Mountain" turns into a juggernaut.
Maher, on the other hand, is putting his money on dark horse Paul Giamatti, who was snubbed at last year's Oscars, despite his success in "Sideways." Giamatti didn't even earn a nomination, to the shock of many. This year he's back as Russell Crowe's fight trainer in "Cinderella Man." While the movie earned good reviews, it tanked at the box office. Still, Maher thinks Giamatti will earn "Cinderella Man's" only Oscar nod -- and win.
Best Supporting Actress: Best supporting actress is often the biggest surprise category on Oscar Night. And again this year, no front-runner is emerging. Rachel Weisz won at the Golden Globes for "The Constant Gardener," and she might be the closest we get to a favorite until the envelope is opened.
Despite her performance in "Lost in Translation," Scarlett Johansson didn't earn a nomination last year. With her latest performance in "Match Point," the 21-year-old actress is likely to get that honor, and perhaps she will grab the gold.
Another 20-something, Michelle Williams, gave a heart-rending performance in "Brokeback" as the wife of a man who is never able to come to terms with his true sexual desires. But she might not have enough screen time in that film to be a serious candidate.